Film industry tempting, but tough

Thursday 12 July 2012, 2:07PM
By Victoria University

Working in film is often precarious, tough and poorly paid, but the attractions of the industry often outweigh the challenges, according to research carried out at Victoria University.

Dr Deborah Jones from Victoria's School of Management, together with Dr Judith Pringle from Auckland University of Technology, were lead investigators on the three-year Marsden funded project Glamour and Grind: New Creative Workers.

"The film industry is not glamour like furs and red carpet,” says Dr Jones, “but it is entrancing and romantic. It’s almost seen as unpatriotic not to admire New Zealand's film industry.

"More than in other fields, people accept it’s going to be difficult but they balance the pain with the pleasure of working in an industry which is seen as exciting and important.”

Internationally, most research into the film industries has focused on economic impact, with the Victoria study believed to be one of the first to look at the experience of individual workers.

The researchers explored debates about ‘hot’ issues for the film industry by talking to a range of experts including film industry groups and guilds, and national and local government advisors. They then conducted in-depth life history interviews with 25 people working as film crew, such as camera and sound operators, and followed them up a year later.

They found, says Dr Jones, that paid work ebbs and flows according to the projects that are underway. In down periods, people often find jobs on the fringes of the industry or work for free. “It’s similar to what we know happens in other countries, but the situation is intensified in New Zealand because the film industry is small."

They also found the way people get into the industry has changed – older workers often came in through a trade or by attending arts school, while younger workers have grown up believing they can have a career in the creative industries and knowing there are plenty of training courses available.

"But everyone accepts it is going to be tougher than other jobs,” says Dr Jones. “You travel a lot and work long hours for little pay, and that’s very hard on relationships and families. The pay-off for people is that they get to do their dream job and work with interesting people on what are seen as cool projects."

Many film workers have a partner earning a good income who is “effectively subsidising the industry", says Dr Jones.

The findings show the 30s are a key crunch point for workers who can be burnt out by the demands of the job and also want to buy a house and have children. Most workers in the industry are self-employed contractors so there is no subsidised childcare or parental leave. "Because getting work relies on a network of people who know you – a ‘mates’ system – if you drop out to raise children, or for any other reason, it can be hard to get back in."

The study also pointed to different attitudes among Pakeha and Maori involved in the screen production industry says Dr Jones.

Two Maori collaborators, Ella Henry and Rachel Wolfgramm, investigated Maori perspectives and found Maori Television has spawned a raft of creative enterprises.

"Maori don’t necessarily view the issues in the same way. They are more likely to see themselves as entrepreneurs, creating something for the collective good of their people, than workers on a project."

Dr Jones says the research highlights the absence of a forum to discuss employment issues for people working in the film industry. "It’s not unionised and there is no industry training organisation – in fact a lot of the work that is done is not really regarded as employment at all, because workers are defined as contractors and it happens through informal networks."

She says the employment model used in the film industry, where workers are self-employed, flexible and move fluidly between different areas, is held up by some as the way of the future.

"We need to be discussing whether this is the kind of labour market New Zealand wants. Is it delivering welcome flexibility and competitive advantage, or is it creating old-style, poor working conditions and new forms of exploitation?"